Workers Vanguard No. 985
2 September 2011
On the Race-Color Caste Oppression of Black People
May 23, 2011
As a long time reader of WV and a supporter of your program I would like to know if a greater clarification of the term colour caste with reference to afro-americans can be made. A search of your website did not reveal anything. The term caste was used by Marx and Trotsky and was exceedingly developed by Max Weber in his sociology. Caste is an ideological term that has been reified by Weber as the major descriptor of hierarchical societies as in India, class is a scientific concept based on the relationship to the means of production. A class analysis is easily applied to caste [in] India but there is no doubt that elements of castism do exist in western societies, an example England. Maybe this distinction between weberian castism and marxist class analysis could be explained more.
David B., Australia
As we noted in the 1967 Spartacist document “Black and Red” (reprinted in Marxist Bulletin No. 9, “Basic Documents of the Spartacist League”): “From their arrival in this country, the Negro people have been an integral part of American class society while at the same time forcibly segregated at the bottom of this society.” The black population in the U.S. does not constitute a separate class—i.e., a group defined by its relationship to the means of production—but faces special oppression. While black Americans span different classes, from the lumpenproletariat and the working class to the petty bourgeoisie and even a minuscule bourgeoisie, all blacks are stigmatized as blacks regardless of social status. This is why we describe the black population in the U.S. as an oppressed race-color caste.
One illustration of the caste oppression of black people in America is their disproportionate representation in the prison population and on death row. The decades-long “war on drugs” is mainly a war on blacks, especially targeting ghetto youth. On the other end of the spectrum was the arrest of distinguished Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. on his own front porch by a white Cambridge cop who thought Gates was “breaking and entering.” Gates happens to be a personal friend of the current president of the United States but he can still be hassled, humiliated and perhaps much worse by any cop who feels like it.
A general social category can never substitute for an empirical analysis of a specific, historically derived formation. But of the available general sociological categories, caste is the best analogy for the position of black people in U.S. society, indicating two of its most fundamental characteristics: segregation from the rest of society along with discriminatory integration into the economy. While there are striking similarities between the oppression of American blacks, Indian lower castes and untouchables, Japanese Burakumin and so on, their particular features are historically based and specific.
Black oppression in the U.S. stems from the institution of slavery in the 17th to 19th centuries on the agricultural plantations in the South, which was key to the development of American capitalism. To ensure a stable, self-reproducing supply of labor, slaveholders clearly demarcated a hereditary social group whose social isolation and inferior status would be enforced by custom and law. Thus the myth of an inferior “race” was created. The “markers” of African descent were used to transform enslaved blacks into a permanent and perpetually vulnerable group of outcasts.
The peculiar “principle” that in the U.S. determined who might be a slave (distinguishing it from slavery in other societies) was “hypodescent,” commonly known as the one-drop rule (one drop of “black” blood). Sexual relations were outlawed between blacks and whites, except for the planters, whose children with black women slaves were slaves and were “black” no matter what their complexion was. To this day, any visible degree of African ancestry remains a sign of presumptive former slave status.
Slavery was abolished as a result of the victory of the North in the Civil War, in which black troops played an important role. This was the real opportunity to smash the special oppression of black people in America. But the Northern bourgeoisie went on to make peace with the Southern planters and blacks were forced back to backbreaking labor on the land as sharecroppers and tenant farmers. Following the end of Union Army occupation of the South, naked white-supremacist rule was restored. With the Ku Klux Klan as the spearhead, the white propertied classes subjected blacks to legally enforced racial segregation, stripped them of all democratic rights and held them down through terror, especially lynching. Thus, while they were not returned to slavery, blacks in the U.S. were consolidated anew as a specially oppressed race-color caste.
Racist ideology contaminated not only working-class whites in the South but also the proletariat in the North. Today, the racial division of black and white is still the fundamental fact that defines American culture and shapes political discourse. Since the substantial entry of blacks into industry, particularly beginning with World War I, anti-black racism was added to, and took precedence over, anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic bigotry, serving as the capitalists’ chief weapon in dividing and holding back the working class. Racial division is at the root of the political and social backwardness of the working class and, in general, of the reactionary features of U.S. society. It has been the most prominent factor inhibiting the development of even a reformist mass political party of the working class organized separately from the capitalist parties, such as exists in all other advanced capitalist countries.
We arrived at the characterization of an oppressed race-color caste in political combat against the conscious revision of Trotskyism by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the 1960s. With the upsurge of mass civil rights struggles, the SWP accommodated the liberal-pacifist leadership of the civil rights movement as well as black nationalism. The Revolutionary Tendency, the forerunner of the Spartacist League, fought against the idea that either pro-Democratic Party liberal reformism or black nationalism in any of its variants could be a solution to the struggle of American blacks.
In 1955, Richard S. Fraser, a veteran member of the SWP, had made a unique Marxist contribution to the understanding of American black oppression in “For the Materialist Conception of the Negro Struggle” (reprinted in Marxist Bulletin No. 5R, “What Strategy for Black Liberation? Trotskyism vs. Black Nationalism”). Fraser defended the view that the black question was one of racial, not national, oppression. Black people in the U.S. lack any material basis for a separate political economy. Whereas the oppressed nations and nationalities of Europe, for instance, were subjected to forced assimilation, American blacks have faced the opposite: forcible segregation. This understanding mandated a program of revolutionary integrationism as the road to black liberation. Fraser explained:
“The goals which history has dictated to [black people] are to achieve complete equality through the elimination of racial segregation, discrimination, and prejudice. That is, the overthrow of the race system. It is from these historically conditioned conclusions that the Negro struggle, whatever its forms, has taken the path of the struggle for direct assimilation. All that we can add to this is that these goals cannot be accomplished except through the socialist revolution.”
While Fraser agreed in substance with the description of black oppression captured in the term “caste,” he rejected the use of this term as applied to the American black population. In this he followed the black sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox, who in 1948 exposed the use of the term “caste” by racist ideologues who were using it to justify Jim Crow segregation in the South. Despite the terminological difference, we stand on Fraser’s contribution that historically the basic thrust of mass black struggle in this country has been for social, economic and political equality and not for separation. While the proletarian vanguard must fight against every manifestation of black oppression, there can be no separate solution to racial oppression short of the united struggle of black and white workers for integration in a socialist society.
Despite the increasing destruction of industrial jobs and erosion of union strength in recent decades, black workers continue to be integrated into strategic, unionized sectors of the industrial proletariat and in the public sector. Won to a revolutionary program, black workers will be the living link fusing the anger of the dispossessed ghetto masses with the social power of the multiracial proletariat under the leadership of a Leninist-Trotskyist party.